Everyone knows it, America is much farther behind on public transportation than many developed countries around the world. In Copenhagen, Denmark, you can get from point to point seamlessly without a car, whether that be on a bike, subway, or personal transport vehicle such as a bike. In Tokyo, Japan, metros run on suburban train lines and suburban trains run into the city center using the extensive metro network.
In many European cities, everything you need is within 15 minutes; grocery stores, banks, post offices—it’s all within walking distance of your house. You don’t need a car, and for that matter, don’t want a car — they’re too expensive.
So what’s different? Why is America so far behind? What can we do to fix it?
Lack of Mobility on Demand
From a basic standpoint, America is nowhere close to having the infrastructure required to allow any person to go anywhere, anytime. This form of seamless mobility is known as mobility on demand or MOD. MOD requires interconnectivity between different transit operators and requires that schedules be grouped together to allow for transfers. In an ideal world, any user would have access to an app providing the user with a suggested route using all available transit modes attached with a price. MOD combines personal mobility options such as bikes or scooters with rideshare companies (also called Transportation Network Companies or TNCs) and with a larger public transport network. When successful, after paying only once through an app, any individual can go wherever they want, whenever they want.
Unfortunately, at present in America, many transit operators don’t have the capabilities to group together their operations, and to make matters worse, many companies have varying fare structures that can’t facilitate payment transfer. If people are to have the most efficient riding experience, they should only have to pay once.
Transit Culture and Politics
A bigger underlying issue with MOD being implemented is 1) opposition from politicians and lobbying groups and more importantly 2) an anti-transit sentiment common among Americans. Sure, many people might like trains in America, but many Americans still carry with them a stigma against buses and bus riders.
Make no mistake, the bus is one of the most crucial elements of transportation out there. When comparing all forms of transportation, buses are by far one of the most efficient forms of transit being able to carry over 100 people in one vehicle sometimes the size of 4 or 5 cars. Buses are crucial to a mobility on demand system because they don’t require tracks to run and can serve small neighborhoods that are far from a metro or light rail system. Many transit systems have already invested in electric buses and this is a trend that will continue well into the future. Unfortunately, these improvements still have yet to change the anti-transit culture that is common across the country.
America is quintessentially a car-focused society and continued investment of millions of dollars into highway improvements affirm this fact. Long ago politicians decided to bulldoze low-income and African American communities to build highways to serve suburbs for rich people looking to commute into cities. Even today local governments spend billions of dollars on a few express lanes; that same money could be used to upgrade and expand frequency on several bus lines or build an entirely new transit system that can help bring low income people out of poverty. Much of this culture is built out of the idea that cars offer individuals a sense of freedom. This argument has been made for decades, but slowly and surely public transit is allowing people to have increased freedom by not being bound to road conditions or traffic—they can leave whenever they want. If there is one thing to be hopeful about, the amount of teens getting drivers licenses is dropping, which does suggest a larger trend of Americans wanting to live in cities as that is where cars aren’t needed (in America). Yet, that points to a bigger problem: if you don’t want to pay the extraordinary expense of owning a car, you have to live in a city center and even then, not all cities have great transit.
That is why, fundamentally, mobility on demand is so exciting. MOD will allow people to live wherever they want and have the freedom to go wherever they want without being restricted by the transit around them. People won’t have to pick where to live based on where the transit or freeways are—they will have micromobility (any personal mobility option weighing under 500 kilograms) options in addition to TNCs on demand.
If America is going to shift towards a transit focused society that promotes exercise and being outdoors, we not only have to abandon the car culture that has increased obesity and killed millions in accidents, but we have to get to a place where people have the incentive to take transit because it is quick and seamless. In a perfect world, families should have no incentive to own a car due to the benefits being far lower than their cost. We are nowhere near that point in this present moment.
We as a country need to get to a point where MOD can be expanded into every suburb and into rural areas. Some people may ask,”What if I want to go on vacation somewhere on the weekend and I need a car?”. I am not advocating that we get rid of all cars — in cases like these, families can simply rent a car for the weekend to get where they want to go. In no world will we get to a place where cars are non-existent—truckers are crucial to the flow of goods; ubers and self-driving cars will play an increasingly important role in the future of transit. Of course, we can’t forget about emergency vehicles. Fundamentally, America needs cars to operate; it is the excessive usage of automobiles by private citizens that has provoked continued investment in highways and shifted money away from public transit.
If America is able to overlook the individual freedom that cars offer and build a system of mobility on demand serving all residents, inclusive of all cultural identities, the landscape of our country will be changed for the better; we will have far more resources to alleviate poverty and we will be able to connect low income people to more jobs. If anything, mobility on demand will provide the individual with maximal freedom because they are not subject to road conditions as much and don’t necessarily have to plan ahead if transit is frequent. More importantly, the individual will be free from all the costs of owning a car.
Mobility on demand is the future, and that future is within reach.
This was meant to be an introduction to mobility on demand. If you would like to learn more about MOD, I recommend you look at the following sources:
- Beck, Julie. The Decline of the Driver’s License https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/the-decline-of-the-drivers-license/425169/
- D’Costa, Krystal. Choice, Control, Freedom and Car Ownership https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/choice-control-freedom-and-car-ownership/#:~:text=Cars%20have%20long%20been%20symbols,vehicle%20but%20choice%20as%20well.
- KaronCurbed. The billion-dollar Ga. Highway 400 express lanes project: What you need to know https://atlanta.curbed.com/2019/4/17/18411608/ga-highway-400-express-lanes-traffic-peach-pass
- Taranu, Ramona. Tokyo’s Railway Network Explained — Trains, Subway And Discount Passes https://matcha-jp.com/en/4409
- Tigue, Kristoffer. U.S. Electric Bus Demand Outpaces Production as Cities Add to Their Fleets https://insideclimatenews.org/news/14112019/electric-bus-cost-savings-health-fuel-charging
- Willsher, Kim. Paris mayor unveils ‘15-minute city’ plan in re-election campaign https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/07/paris-mayor-unveils-15-minute-city-plan-in-re-election-campaign